🦋 Is Chinese democracy democracy?

Socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics

To answer the question ‘What is democracy?’ in a way that helps democracy itself, the lexicon of democracy cannot offer straightforward meanings for each item. It matters why and how an adjective came to be attached (its ‘genetic’ understandings). We must draw users’ attention to ‘people, their customs and practices,’ and ask ‘Why democracy?’.

Democracy as part of Chinese heritage

A genetic understanding would unmask the CCP’s motivation in the geopolitical-ideological battle with the US. Its democracy claim is part of its history and identity, going back to Mao Tse-tung’s words in January of 1940. Mao said that the Chinese revolution had two stages, democracy and socialism. He also claimed the former was ‘democracy of the Chinese type, a new and special type, namely, New Democracy’. Maintaining its claim to democracy is as important to the CCP’s legitimacy as its revolutionary history.

Democracy through a Chinese cultural lens

Mao envisaged a new culture to go with his New Democracy. He rejected traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism, as feudal. Today, Xi Jinping portrays himself as a wise Confucian ruler. The CCP, meanwhile, is cast as the guardian of Chinese culture for the good of the Chinese people. The different entries under ‘Chinese democracy’ could contest the CCP’s hegemonic appropriation of Chinese culture, as well as the meaning of democracy. Chih-yu Shih explores how cultural lenses influence understandings of democracy. He concludes that, despite pluriversal relationalities and different values, ‘liberal democracy and Confucianism 民主 point to a common desire for a style of policy making exempt from a monopoly’.

Confucian democracy

The scholar Samuel Huntington once labelled Confucian democracy an oxymoron. Yet it has been the subject of a growing literature in the debate about Confucianism’s implication for contemporary political philosophy. Certain scholars maintain strongly that Confucianism is more meritocratic than democratic. There are, however, some political theories of Confucian democracy which uphold values of freedom and equality compatible with Western conceptions. These include my own attempt to reconstruct Confucianism through comparison with Dewey’s Pragmatism.

The importance of theory

In building Gagnon’s database, criteria of inclusion and exclusion are problematic, and theory will remain indispensable. The question is what role the database could play in theorising about democracy. The positivistic approach implied by the butterfly-collecting analogy as a scientific project is troubling (see Luke Temple’s alternative analogy). Nevertheless, it is still worth exploring how the decolonising and decentring potential of Gagnon’s proposal could be realised by different methods and uses of his democracy database.



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The Science of Democracy

The Science of Democracy


Republished essays, in chronological order, from The Loop’s short essay series on the “science of democracy”